Higganum Brothers Fashion Distinctive Furniture From Historic Trees In Exhibit At Hartford Historical Society
By SUSAN DUNNE
December 18, 2011
Everybody in Connecticut is talking about downed trees. So the new exhibit at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford is particularly timely, as it shows beautiful things that were made from old trees.
"New Life for Connecticut Trees: Furniture by City Bench" highlights the work of Higganum brothers Ted and Zeb Esselstyn, owners City Bench, a woodworking shop that makes furniture exclusively from Connecticut trees.
"History is all around us. That's so true, and we're tapping into that idea with these trees," said Ted Esselstyn. "Trees stand as silent witnesses to generations of communities. When they come down, they can still give back to the communities."
The exhibit features 23 items made from a variety of trees, including a huge sugar maple that grew in front of the Ivoryton Playhouse. "For generations, actors learned their lines sitting on the iron bench under this huge maple," Ted said. "Two years ago, it came down, and the playhouse said, 'We can make something from it.'
"The tree service deemed it too rotten to do anything with," he said. "That's when we called them." That tree is now a bench and a trencher, a decorative bowl.
In the exhibit, each item is accompanied by a small cardboard leaflet telling the tree's history. "We do what we can to keep alive the narrative of each tree," Ted said.
Those narratives are varied, and have made a wide range of pieces: a Madison oak tree made into a wingback chair; a table made from a white oak in Branford; a bench made from a sugar maple on the Wesleyan campus; a tulip poplar from Branford made into an unusually colored seat; a series of eight benches made from a red maple in Middletown.
This dedication to local trees — what Ted calls "bio-regionalism" — extends beyond just using Connecticut trees but also leaving in a lot of the natural elements to the wood, including the bark, the uneven edges, the holes.
"Often furniture is so dressed up, you forget it was once a tree," he said. "If we have a split in the plank, we make that split part of the design."
Even beyond the tree's natural elements, City Bench makes use of unnatural elements, too.
"Commercial mills won't take trees that have metal embedded in them, from people putting signs on them, fenceposts, anchor bolts, embedded electrical wire," Zeb said. "It damages their rotary blades, which costs thousands of dollars to repair.
"We use band saws and chainsaws. They still could be damaged, but they would cost about $25 to fix," he said. "We use the metals in the designs."
The brothers said that they have received many calls since the October storm, from people who want to show them their trees, and on the day of the interview, they were on their way to examine an enormous cedar that was damaged in the storm and had to come down. But they said that they can't use all of them.
"The one thing tougher than not having enough wood is having too much wood," Ted said. "But we understand people who want something built from it. That tree, their yard, is their own charter oak."
Along with the Esselstyn's handiworks — which are all for sale — the Historical Society exhibit also features "Lost Landscapes," an exhibit of albumen photograph taken by Frederick S. Brown in the 1880s of enormous Connecticut trees. Most of these trees are no longer standing.
"NEW LIFE FOR CONNECTICUT TREES: FURNITURE BY CITY BENCH" will be at the Connecticut Historical Society, 1 Elizabeth St. in Hartford, until March 17. Details: http://www.chs.org or http://www.city-bench.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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